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Friday, November 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Americans head back to once-forbidden Libya

Sand dunes stretch into the distance on the northern edge of the Sahara desert at al-Ramla in western Libya. Since the government of Moammar Gadhafi began its campaign to open its doors to the outside world, tourists are visiting in increasing numbers.
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Libya, a Muslim country on the north coast of Africa, is open to Americans after 20 years of U.S. sanctions.

The thaw in relations cracks open a tantalizingly closed door. On the other side are marvels of the ancient world such as the 2,000-year-old ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna, once part of the Roman Empire; the vibrant capital city of Tripoli, poised between dilapidation and rehabilitation; 1,250 miles of Mediterranean coast; and oasis towns still visited by camel caravans.

Best of all, Libya, like China in the 1970s, remains largely untouched by mass tourism, with Libyans eager and curious about visitors. The U.S. government loosened terrorism-related sanctions earlier this year that had barred Americans from traveling in Libya.

Still, the country of 6 million people had 300,000 foreign tourists last year, mostly Europeans drawn by Libya's fabled Roman ruins and its sandy Saharan south, which in the past decade has taken the place of strife-torn Algeria as a destination for desert treks.

But it's not easy to visit Libya. A U.S. State Department travel warning remains in effect, and tourist services are rudimentary, except in Tripoli. Credit cards are rarely accepted. Alcohol is banned, in adherence to Muslim law. Getting visas can be a long process.

All that makes guided tours of Libya — offered by an increasing number of American and European adventure-travel companies — the best way for most travelers to go for now.

Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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